Stuffed-crust pizza is about to grow up.
On Friday, Pizza Hut, the nation's pizza giant, will announce plans to roll out a more adult-focused version of its stuffed-crust pizza that will be sold in addition to its current stuffed-crust offering. The newest entry, 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza, will be stuffed with white cheddar, mozzarella and provolone cheeses.
The product roll-out, to begin Oct. 20, is Pizza Hut's attempt to move the stuffed-crust pizza category beyond mostly kids and families to include more Millennials and adults. Millennials, in particular, crave mixed flavors in their foods - so that's the chain's latest laser focus.
Instead of one ring of single-flavored, mozzarella cheese in the crust, the newest addition is made with pockets of three cheeses. If the product extension is a hit, it could evolve Pizza Hut's stuffed-crust line into a $1 billion brand over the next three years, projects Kurt Kane, chief marketing officer at Pizza Hut.
"We are re-inventing the stuffed-crust experience," he says.
The tweak is not a move the chain makes lightly. Sure, it's tried all kinds of temporary tweaks to the stuffed-crust brand - even stuffing various toppings into the crust. But none caught fire. This one is the first permanent, new pizza product added to the Pizza Hut menu in almost two decades.
While stuffed-crust consumers are an industry niche - about 10% of Pizza Hut's sales - there's still plenty of room for growth, says Kane. The original stuffed-crust pizza at Pizza Hut generated more than $300 million in sales its first year on the market, he says.
But sales have been rocky in recent years for the $36 billion restaurant pizza industry as consumers have cut back on spending. This has forced the major pizza chains to push a value message - such as Pizza Hut's current $10 pizza offer. But stuffed crust is priced as a premium pizza, and it typically costs at least $2 more than conventional pizzas.
"People want more cheese - and they never complain when they get it," says Wiley Bates III, executive chef at Pizza Hut. "This is a better explosion of cheese."
More cheese in pizza is a big plus for consumers, says Christopher Muller, a hospitality professor at Boston University. In particular, it adds to the flavor, he says. Even then, he's not so certain the new offering will attract a lot of Millennials. Muller has three children in their 20s who are Millennials. "I can't imagine any of them changing their current pizza consumption habits simply to buy this," he says. "Millennials don't want to be pandered to by large corporations."
Far from pandering, says Kane, the move is consumer-focused - and has been a hit in testing. "It's the most universally well-received upgrade to stuffed crust that we've ever tried," he says. "Sometimes the best ideas are the most simple."